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Lawmakers Say Sex-Trafficked Kansas Teen's Story Is 'Heartbreaking'

Evert Nelson
The Topeka-Capital-Journal
Rep. Russ Jennings, R-Larkin, chair of the Joint Committee on Corrections and Juvenile Justice, said the Kansas child welfare system has long been 'deeply troubled.'

From cries of heartbreak to a call for the prosecution of men who pay for sex with girls, Kansas lawmakers said the story of Hope Zeferjohn, a teen victim of sex-trafficking who was prosecuted for sex crimes, focuses a harsh light on a state system that is supposed to protect children.

This week, KCUR and the Topeka Capital-Journal published an investigative series profiling Zeferjohn’s journey from runaway, to the sex trade, to incarceration. The stories also reported the prosecution of a dozen other girls who had run away from state custody, were sex-trafficked and then prosecuted for sex crimes.   

"My heart breaks for these children," said Sen. Richard Hilderbrand, a Republican from Galena. "Our system has failed at the one thing that it is supposed to do, and that is to protect our children.”

The series outlined how Zeferjohn, then 14, met her boyfriend, Anthony “Angel” Long, a decade older than her, and fell under his control while still living with her family in Topeka. After she was placed into state custody, Long found her in a Salina foster home by calling authorities and pretending to be Zeferjohn’s father, she said. Zeferjohn ran away when she was 15 and Long began prostituting her.   

“How can we allow a child predator to trick our system into giving them the location of one of our children?” Hilderbrand said. “What steps have we taken to make sure that this never happens again? These questions have to be answered and have to be fixed."

Because Zeferjohn recruited other girls for Long's prostitution ring, she was convicted of aggravated sex trafficking. She is serving a six-year sentence in the Topeka Correctional Facility and must be on the sex-offender registry for life. Zeferjohn is seeking a pardon from Gov. Laura Kelly, and on Wednesday, the Kansas City Star and the Topeka Capital-Journal editorial boards called for Kelly to give Zeferjohn clemency.

Rep. Stephanie Clayton, an Overland Park Democrat, said law enforcement should instead focus on the men paying for sex with a child.

“If we’re going to be spending that money on prison bed space, I don’t know, gosh, how about we start incarcerating the johns?" Clayton said. "Let’s incarcerate the complete and total garbage people that are having sex with 15-year-olds. Because they need to be put away. They’re the problem. They’re terrible people. I have no sympathy for that.”

Last year, Kansas Attorney General Derek Schmidt launched a public awareness campaign to discourage paid sex. His spokesman, CJ Grover, on Wednesday renewed the call to prosecute buyers.

"The driving force behind commercial sexual exploitation, including sex trafficking, is the demand for commercial sex," Grover said. "Buyers who create that demand must be held accountable for their role in enabling sex trafficking and other forms of commercial sexual exploitation. The attorney general would be supportive of more local prosecutions of buyers."

An increase in runaways from the state's foster care system stems from the policies of former Gov. Sam Brownback. After he took office in 2011, the foster care population ballooned from 5,200 to nearly 7,500. Child placement agencies struggled to recruit homes for the additional children, leading to an increase in runaways who didn't find the care they needed.

Credit Kansas Department for Children and Families
Then-Gov. Sam Brownback (center) of Kansas poses with the Zeferjohn family on May 22, 2015, to kick off 'Family Reunification Month.' Terry Zeferjohn, Hope's father, is in the back row, left, and four Zeferjohn children are in the front row.

In 2015, Brownback staged a photo op with the Zeferjohn family to tout his administration's efforts to reunite families. Hope Zeferjohn was missing from the photo because the 16-year-old was already under the control of Long, who is now serving a 35-year prison sentence.

Senate Minority Leader Anthony Hensley, D-Topeka, said the photo op was a typical example of how Brownback's administration operated.

"They were taking credit for things they really didn’t understand, nor did they really accomplish what they were taking credit for," Hensley said. "I think that’s a perfect example.”

Also Wednesday, a legislative committee heard about the “deeply troubled” child welfare system in Kansas. Lawmakers were told that reforms made in 2017 moved troubled kids into foster care, where those with severe behaviors are hurting other kids, destroying property and scaring away foster families.

Two state foster care providers said this new influx of children has severely overwhelmed an already taxed system, leaving a chaotic situation where kids are sleeping in offices and providers are wondering if they can ever find them a home.

“We have seen traumatic, tragic events that keep me awake at night,” said Rachel Marsh of Saint Francis Ministries, one of the foster care providers, in testimony before a joint committee on corrections and juvenile justice oversight.

“The child welfare system in Kansas is deeply troubled,” said Rep. Russ Jennings, R-Larkin, chairman of the legislative panel. “But trouble within the child welfare system is not news.”

Problems with foster care in Kansas have existed for years, Jennings said, and the situation hasn't improved.

Sen. Molly Baumgardner, R-Louisburg, said she is still bothered by the large number of runaways from the foster care system, which came to light two years ago. She also was unhappy that state officials aren’t providing lawmakers with updates on the number of runaways and locations where it is happening.

The problems within the child welfare system happen because state and local agencies aren’t working together, Baumgardner said.

“We have our schools are not working with our foster program, are not working with law enforcement, and so we have silos, and those silos need to be getting together, working together to serve our kids,” she said.

This story is part of a partnership between KCUR and The Topeka Capital-Journal, with support from the Corporation for Public Broadcasting in collaboration with APM Reports, the investigative reporting unit of American Public Media.

Peggy Lowe is a reporter at KCUR. She’s on Twitter@peggyllowe.

Sherman Smith is a reporter for the Topeka Capital-Journal. He’s on Twitter at@sherman_news.

I’m a veteran investigative reporter who came up through newspapers and moved to public media. I want to give people a better understanding of the criminal justice system by focusing on its deeper issues, like institutional racism, the poverty-to-prison pipeline and police accountability. Today this beat is much different from how reporters worked it in the past. I’m telling stories about people who are building significant civil rights movements and redefining public safety. Email me at lowep@kcur.org.
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